Mandela Cell Robben Island
Africa

Mandela, Movies And The New South Africa

I watched Invictus for the first time on the flight back from South Africa. It’s a powerful, incredibly moving film (Morgan Freeman is a mighty Nelson Mandela) and I found myself glued to the screen. The movie bought to life everything I had just learnt about during my trip. The scenes on the screen matched those of my memories, the thoughts of the characters echoed my own. My tears, which came often, were freefalling and unstoppable, because this wasn’t just a movie. This was real, raw and recent history. Invictus is a fantastic film, Freeman as Mandela is a marvel but, for me, in the movie and real life, South Africa is the star.

My journey to South Africa followed the footsteps of Mandela, footsteps which the inflight movie was making me retrace. For those that have not seen the film, Invictus follows the first few months of Mandela’s Presidency in South Africa, a time where he used rugby to bring the nation together.

Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum is currently holding a Mandela Exhibition. Covering the full history of his life as well as his time in power, an image of Mandela shaking the hand of the South Africa ruby team’s Captain is blown up large on one wall. It’s a strong symbolic image; a representation of change, celebration and a situation this movie was beginning to make sense of for me.

Apartheid Museum Entrance

(Entrance to the Apartheid Museum. Visitors are classified randomly as ‘white’ or ‘non-white’ & must enter via separate doors.)

In the film the South African rugby team visit Robben Island prison, just as we did during our time in Cape Town. Matt Damon, who plays the Captain shouldering the hopes of a nation, stands in the tiny cell Mandela was held in for 18 years of a 27-year imprisonment. He holds out his arms, which touch the walls on either side, and later he utters the same thought that came to my mind when I stood in that spot.

“18 years in this place and he comes out advocating forgiveness for those that put him here?”

Mandela Cell Robben Island

(Where Mandela spent 18 years of his life, he was imprisoned for 27 years in total)

Robben Island, we learnt on our visit, was referred to as ‘the university’ by many of the prisoners who ended up attaining degrees during their time there. Prison tours are conducted by ex-prisoners who can tell you personally what life was like there. (You can also tour the rest of Robben Island for there is more to it than a prison – people still live in the village today.) A shaded corner of the quarry prisoners were made to work in is referred to as the location of the first democratic parliament. As all political prisoners were kept in the same section, they would confer over time, regardless of party backgrounds. When Apartheid ended in the 1990’s and the ban on political parties like the ANC was lifted, many of the prisoners released from Robben Island went on to become members of Parliament. And, of course, one of those men, who was kept in a minute cell and chiselled limestone in the quarry, went on to become the first black President of South Africa.

Cape Town as seen from Robben Island

(Cape Town as seen from Robben Island)

In Invictus the rugby team headed to Soweto too. The all white team (bar one) enter the township to teach children how to play what is considered the white man’s sport. After initial reluctance the children begin playing ball, eventually hanging off the players every limb, animatedly waving when they have to leave. This mirrors the reaction we have on our Soweto tour. When their initial shyness is overcome, the children begin to reach for any available part of my hand as we walk amongst their makeshift homes and learn more about how they came to be here.

Making friends in Soweto

(Making friends in Soweto)

There are parts of the movie that don’t reflect my experience though; in parts the Hollywoodfied history makes me cringe. The scenes involving the Captain’s family and housemaid are amongst the worst. The suggestion that at the start of the film she is seen as simply the hired help and by the end she is a part of the family, attending the rugby match alongside them, is ludicrous. Offensive even. I had been to the Apartheid Museum. I read accounts of how African and ‘coloured’ people were treated; my jaw dropped at videos of the Afrikaans Government explaining how hard it was to rule over ‘barbarous blacks’. My guides in both Cape Town and Johannesburg were gentle, kind men who revealed they had been imprisoned and tortured for wanting an education, and I met a talented musician in Gugu Letu Township who was once not allowed to perform for white folk. The suggestion that everything changed over the course of a game is offensive.

Still work to be done

(Change takes time)

But it seems it was a start. And Mandela’s approach to looking forward rather than back was one that many adopted. It was an example the wronged men I met were willing to follow too. Admirably so.

My journey to South Africa took me beyond Mandela’s footsteps. It took me to the new South Africa, the one his approach had helped create. It took me to gentrified areas of once abandoned central Jo’burg and to Cape Town boutiques based on African culture. I visited markets where the focus is on food and not the colour of your face. I met fresh graduates from integrated schools, with friends from all races and grand plans for the future. I also met people who remarked on colour – our presence as white people in a non-tourist part of Soweto was welcomed but declared unusual, “I have white colleagues who are scared to come here,” said one. But it is, of course, still early days.

Neighbourgoods Market Jo'burg

(NeighbourGoods Market Jo’burg – foodie heaven)

South Africa will once again be on the big screen when the much anticipated “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is released in January 2014 (just the trailer had me agog). In the meantime I’ve downloaded the book so that my education can continue.

As for Invictus and my flight back home – I am totally choked up by this film, for the parts of my trip it reminds me of and the version of South Africa today it does not touch upon. I look forward to sharing with you more of my experiences in Cape Town and Johannesburg over the coming weeks and urge you to watch Invictus if you have not done so already. I don’t even like rugby and look what it did to me!

I visited South Africa in association with South Africa tourism. In Cape Town I was guided by Escape to the Cape (escapetothecape.co.za); scheduled day tours from R700 (£50) per person. In Jo’burg we were looked after by JMT Tours (jmttours.co.za) headed up by Joe Motsogi – the first African tour guide in South Africa; day tours from R650 (£40) per person.

 I flew with South Africa Airways who offer return flights to Cape Town from London Heathrow from £860.45. Price includes tax, surcharges, APD and the chance to watch Invictus on the inflight entertainment system. For more information visit www.flysaa.com.

For further information on South Africa, visit www.southafrica.net.

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